‘Are you ready?’
‘Do I look ready?’
Pokrovsky had just stepped out of his banya, the bath hut behind the forge, with nothing but a towel draped round his barrel waist and a grin on his face. Elizaveta Lishnikova wasn’t sure whether she found the grin or the massive naked chest more disconcerting. The sun was about to dip down behind the ridge but not before it had set fire to the clouds in the west, a flaming red that draped a glowing sheen over the blacksmith’s oiled skin.
‘You’re beautiful,’ she murmured. ‘Like Odysseus.’
‘Odysseus. A Greek warrior from…’ she was going to say Homer’s Odyssey but changed it to ‘from long ago’.
Pokrovsky laughed unself-consciously, flexing both his arms to emphasise his huge biceps for her entertainment.
‘Like rocks,’ he said.
‘Granite boulders, more like.’
He laughed again and put his muscles away, leaving her wondering what they would be like to touch. Until she came to teach in Tivil sixteen years ago, her experience of men had been limited to waltzing with cavalry officers or walking through the gilded gardens of Peterhof on the arm of an elegant naval captain. Even then she had enjoyed the feel of their hard masculine flesh under their uniforms, but they were as remote from Pokrovsky as the bright orange lizards that darted under his banya were from the grey monster crocodiles of the Nile.
Elizaveta was fifty-three now. Wasn’t it time she stopped this girlish rubbish? It wasn’t as though she’d never been asked, despite being as tall as she was. Three offers of marriage she’d turned down, much to her parents’ anguish. She had even allowed one of the suitors to kiss her on the terrace, a recollection of a bristling moustache and the taste of good brandy on his lips, but she hadn’t loved any of them and preferred her own company to that of fools.
‘Pokrovsky,’ she said in her teacher’s voice, ‘how old are you?’
‘How old, man?’
‘Why aren’t you married?’
‘That’s none of your damn business.’
‘I expect you frighten the females with those great granite boulders of yours. You’d crush any girl to death with them.’
‘Hah!’ But the blacksmith was grinning again. ‘The trouble with you, Elizaveta, is that you think you know everything. If you’re so damn clever, tell me, how old are you and why aren’t you married?’
‘Don’t be so bloody impertinent, Pokrovsky. Go and get yourself decent at once. You’ll be late for tonight if you don’t hurry. Don’t you know that you shouldn’t even be talking to a lady in that rude state of undress?’
He roared with laughter and rubbed a great hand across his neat little beard, then ambled off to his izba. Elizaveta took her time heading into the forge, she didn’t want him to think she was anything other than calm and indifferent to his gibes. But once inside, she poured herself a stiff glass of vodka and knocked it back in one.
Only then did she permit herself a smile and dare to imagine the heroic Odysseus with a chest like that.